Living Columns & Blogs

Centre Climate: Why avoiding talking about climate change is a ‘recipe for disaster’

Is climate change really a partisan issue? Both parties agree on protection of the environment. Past Republican administrations founded the Environmental Protection Agency (the Nixon administration) and also supported action on climate change (the George H.W. Bush administration).

Yet today, national polls suggest that action on climate change is a priority for Democrats but not for Republicans. And, the only serious piece of climate legislation, passed by the US House in 2009, was supported almost exclusively by Democrats (it died due to a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate).

Locally, Democratic politicians have been at the forefront of climate action in county government, Ferguson Township and in the State College Borough, while some Republicans have opposed very preliminary measures, such as building of solar arrays. But dig a little deeper and you will find another story.

A recent poll discovered that 77% of younger Republicans agree that climate change is a serious threat. In another recent poll, 40% of white evangelicals, most of whom are loyal Republicans, support the Green New Deal.

These numbers accord with my experience, teaching the ethics of climate change on campus. Many Penn State students are deeply conservative, but they are also curious, smart and concerned about their future. So why don’t we hear from them?

Part of the answer is our insatiable appetite for controversy. Extreme points of view do grab our attention. But I think the real answer is something much more insidious: politeness!

Like most of us, students are wary of discussing controversial topics. Penn State professor Janet Swim has looked into this issue in-depth. Her research suggests that when it comes to climate change, we all think (wrongly) that everyone else is more skeptical than we are.

Plus, climate change is complicated, and even those who are passionate about the issue have a lot of trouble explaining greenhouse gases, the role of the sun, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. (Penn State’s Richard Alley explains all this and more in his PBS special, “Earth: The Operators’ Manual.”)

Being polite is important, and we certainly need more kindness in the world. But avoiding controversial topics like climate change is a recipe for disaster. If we’re going to address this challenge, we need all points of view.

Again, younger Republicans are in the game. I had a prominent member of the Penn State College Republicans in my class. He argued strongly for a market-oriented approach, such as the carbon fee and dividend supported by conservative economist and Nobel laureate William Nordhaus.

This is the same approach favored by U.S. Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania’s first district. At 45, Fitzpatrick is among the youngest Congressional representatives from Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, local Republicans do not have strong leadership on climate change. Voting for the Democrats in November is a short-term solution, but so long as climate remains a partisan issue, we will never address it properly.

The answer, I believe, is simply talking with each other about our shared values. We all share a deep appreciation of our beautiful countryside in the Centre Region; we join together in helping neighbors in need; we want to leave a better world for our children. When we start with these values, the partisan divides fade and the path toward common action becomes clearer.

Jonathan Brockopp has been a resident of Centre County for 15 years and teaches the Ethics of Climate Change at Penn State. He welcomes your comments and ideas at brockopp@psu.edu.
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